MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. --
True leadership must be for the benefit of the followers, not the enrichment of the leaders.
While Robert Townsend’s message above strikes to the core of servant leadership, he is far from the first to assert the value in serving the people one leads. Historical figures from Lao Tzu to Martin Luther King, Jr., all championed the idea that a true leader places followers’ needs ahead of those of the leader.
Delving into the roots of servant leadership in my own life, the incredible story of Medal of Honor recipient, Capt. Lance P. Sijan is another example of service and self-sacrificial leadership, which holds deeply personal significance as an early and primary influence on my decision to join the Air Force. Drawing on inspiration from influences such as Capt. Sijan and Lt. Gen. James M. “Jumpin’ Jim” Gavin, commander of the storied 82nd Airborne Division during World War II, my own leadership philosophy today remains squarely and foundationally centered on servant leadership, and packaged into an acronym of the word serve.
The first letter, ‘S’ correlates to the word sacrifice. Servant leaders willingly sacrifice for their subordinates, and place subordinates’ needs above their own. In what has come to define a core of the paratrooper leadership ethos, Gavin demanded that his officers be “The first out of the airplane door and the last in the chow line.” On four of the five combat jumps in the European Theater of Operations, he repeatedly led his paratroopers as the first jumper out the door of perfectly good aircraft into combat behind enemy lines. That perpetual adherence to his own standard of servant leadership inspired his subordinates to lead their soldiers into battle, and then, once a chow line was available, to make sure their troopers had full bellies before they filled their own. Gavin’s example of working to equip his soldiers with the food, ammunition and equipment they needed, regardless of the cost to himself, also established extreme loyalty amongst his rank-and-file paratroopers.
Despite the disruption to the acronym’s order, the two ‘E’s’ in serve correspond to empathize and empower, as I found the next two concepts inseparably intertwined. In order to serve one’s subordinates most effectively, a leader must strive to understand them and their needs, necessitating empathy. A leader with the ability to empathize is far more able to foster genuine relationships with subordinates by demonstrating authenticity and humanity, which also infuses mutual trust into those relationships. Fueled by that empathetic trust and understanding, those authentic leaders can invest additional authority into their subordinates, empowering them to accomplish individual tasks, and ultimately the mission, more independently and effectively.[i]
For the ‘R’ in serve, reliable is a particularly apt descriptor, as a servant leader must be someone on whom subordinates can depend on or the entire relationship ceases to function. However, individual spiritual resilience and dedication to a larger purpose must also sustain the servant leader’s reliability or that leader risks exhausting themselves and thus their capacity to lead.
That resilience can provide or enable effective coping mechanisms through which individuals can endure or overcome the stresses and adversities of life. Similarly, reliably modeling such behavior for subordinates or simply providing dependable sources of engaged support and encouragement can offer boosts in resiliency at the point of need. In practical terms, the North Vietnamese prison guards who put Capt. Lance Sijan in the care of Col. Bob Craner and Capt. Guy Gruters in late 1967, had no way of comprehending that Sijan’s horribly ill and mangled body still contained an astoundingly resilient spirit. Indeed, despite his appalling physical injuries, and until his death from pneumonia on January 22, 1968, Sijan reliably continued to do his utmost to focus on fighting his captors by resisting and attempting to escape. Neither could the North Vietnamese have known that Sijan’s resilient resistance would help to inspire and sustain Craner, Gruters and many other prisoners through much of their five years in Hanoi.
Finally, in my acronym, ‘V’ is for vigilant, pertaining to the servant-leader’s attentive self-regulation, as well as to their watchful eye on the immediate surroundings of his or her unit and personnel, and to the broader world environment. Internally, a leader must remain attuned to his or her internal moral compass and ethical standards. At the same time, leaders must vigilantly scrutinize their mental processes, systems of thought and any preconceptions for cognitive biases, emotional reactions, prejudices and other pitfalls. Within the surroundings of one’s team or unit, a servant-leader should be sustaining the previously discussed authentic, trust-based subordinate relationships with his or her subordinates. In that context and out of genuine care and concern for the well-being of the subordinates, the leader should also study and analyze the behavior and condition of those subordinates, watching for changes in behavior, both positive and negative.
However, the leader cannot be everywhere all the time, and thus, must establish an organizational climate based in authentic relationships and resilience, wherein the members of the unit or team vigilantly watch out for each other. As a practical example, while Bob Craner and Guy Gruters attentively cared for Sijan in his last 60 days of life, Sijan, continued to exhibit vigilance, despite his horrific injuries and deteriorating health. He never ceased to focus on escape and resistance, realizing that caring for him allowed Craner and Gruters the opportunity to draw strength from each other and improve their cover stories. Shockingly, near his death and similar to his first escape attempt in the first jungle holding camp, Sijan even tried to lure another guard into the cell with the intent of attacking him and trying to escape, showing a nearly superhuman level of vigilance, resilience and dedication.
Drawing on the examples of Capt. Sijan and others like Gavin, we have the opportunity, through servant leadership to positively impact the lives of the Airmen who trust us to lead them. In that vein, the S.E.R.V.E. represents the paradigm I use as I continue to grow and learn new lessons on my leadership journey, and perhaps the idea of a sacrificial, empathetic, reliable, vigilant and empowering leader could be useful construct for someone else. To any willing individual, I would extend Townsend’s challenge: regardless of the philosophical template, simply focus on the followers, and lead to their benefit rather than to enrich the leader.